Mon, Nov 17, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Pop music's "dreamgirl" awakens:

Beyonce Knowles is a double threat this holiday season, with a new album, ‘I Am … Sasha Fierce,’which is being released tomorrow — and a starring role in ‘Cadillac Records,’ a new film set to open early next month

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In the new film Cadillac Records, which tells the story of the pioneering Chicago blues label Chess Records, Beyonce Knowles makes a memorable entrance. Playing the singer Etta James, Knowles is introduced to the label’s co-founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) in a hotel room, where she sprawls across the bed and snaps, “Don’t be looking at me like I ain’t wearing no drawers.” She then curses at everyone and everything in sight before hiding in the bathroom, where she unleashes the voice that resulted in a long string of classic R’n’B hits for James.

It’s startling to see Knowles — one of the few pop stars left with a wholesome, good-girl image — swaggering and swearing through her performance. But her mother, Tina, who vets all the scripts that are submitted to her, flagged this one as a keeper, noting that the hard-living, emotionally scarred James could be the role of a lifetime.

In an interview on the top floor of a hotel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Knowles said that when she read the script: “I said, ‘I have to do this movie,’ but I was terrified. Was I really ready?”

Knowles’ most significant previous role was in 2006’s Dreamgirls, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. Even so, her study of the life of James and her work on the film not only resulted in new dramatic range, it also altered the direction of her new album, I Am ... Sasha Fierce, which is being released tomorrow on Music World/Columbia Records.

There was certainly no guarantee that a woman who appeared on the cover of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue could be convincing as the heroin-addicted daughter of a prostitute, whose powerhouse sound conveyed a lifetime of heartbreak and defiance in songs like At Last and Tell Mama, incorporating a blues attitude into a wide range of pop genres.

“I was surprised at how much Beyonce threw the glamour out the window so easily and so joyfully, and embraced the unattractiveness of being strung out,” said Darnell Martin, the writer and director of the film, which is to open in the US on Dec. 5. Though the role was written with Knowles in mind, Martin said she was impressed by how far she pushed herself, physically and emotionally, into the darkest parts of James’ life. “She was really excited about getting that raw,” Martin said. “She really wanted to dig in and get real.”

The climax of Cadillac Records — with a disheveled Etta James saved from an overdose by Leonard Chess in her empty, ghostly house — makes for an impressive contrast with the Beyonce who strode quickly through the hotel room’s door, talking quickly and smiling broadly.

On the day after the presidential election she was decked out in an “Obama-inspired” outfit — a navy blue double-breasted suit and a red-white-and-blue-striped tie. Knowles, 27, was supposed to be in Japan doing publicity for the new album, but she cut her trip short to be in New York to watch the returns with friends at home; she decorated her apartment with balloons and flags for the occasion.

“I fell asleep literally with tears in my eyes, crying and smiling at the same time,” she said, seated cross-legged on a couch. “I almost feel guilty talking about the record, because there’s more important things going on.”

The album marks an ambitious step for the Houston-born Knowles, who — as a solo artist (using only her first name) and as a member of the trio Destiny’s Child — has sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. It’s a double-disc set: One CD, I Am, is a ballad-heavy set of relatively spare, introspective songs; the second disc, Sasha Fierce, takes its name from her onstage alter ego and shifts focus to more up-tempo dance tracks. (Continuing an annoying industry trend, the album is being released simultaneously in a “standard version,” with 11 songs, and a “deluxe version,” containing 18 songs.)

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